With its crystal-clear blue lagoons, mountain springs, pristine rainforest, and stunning white-sand beaches, Jamaica certainly lives up to the meaning of its name, “the land of wood and water.”
All the natural wonders on this tropical island are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and they explain why Jamaica has been such a popular destination for decades. The island’s unique natural bounty is also responsible for the food and drink culture that has evolved—one built around the pillars of fresh fish, tropical fruit, and of course, full-bodied aged rum.
After a day spent exploring the island’s awe-inspiring natural beauty and hidden gems, visitors can retire to luxury boutique hotels that range from thatched villas perched on quiet coves to treehouse cabins intertwined with the canopy of lush forest.
If Jamaica travel isn’t already at the top of your bucket list, it definitely should be.
Although there haven’t been any recent sightings, legend has it that a dragon lives deep in the crisp, clear turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon—a rare natural pool that’s part saltwater and part fresh.
We can understand why a dragon—or anyone, for that matter—would want to live in this unique lagoon, which is simultaneously open to the sea and constantly refreshed by streams of spring water trickling down through the mountains surrounding the bay. Experiencing the gentle swirl of the cool water flowing into the warm current makes for a memorable swim, made even more magical by the stunning view of the coast’s forest and all the tropical flowers and rare birds that call these mountains home.
Fun fact: It used to be called the “Blue Hole,” but after this breathtaking location was used as the setting for The Blue Lagoon, a 1980 feature film starring Brooke Shields, people started using that name instead.
The island’s legendary bamboo trees are an important part of the island’s culture and history, especially in St. Elizabeth Parish—the “breadbasket” of Jamaica. No visit to this rich agricultural area would be complete without a drive down “Bamboo Avenue,” a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of road lined with bamboo so dense and lush that it actually feels like passing through a shady tunnel constructed entirely of leafy trees.
Located about a half-hour away from Appleton Estate, this “tunnel” takes on even more significance when you know that bamboo used to be one of Jamaica’s most important natural resources, used in everything from housing to musical instruments. The plant’s most important role, though, was to act as a “living fence” on the region’s farms, providing shade for agricultural workers, a little roughage for the livestock, and protection from soil erosion for the fertile earth.
Although bamboo became less common over the past century, it’s making a comeback now that people have rediscovered it as an eco-friendly alternative to single-use plastics.
Blue Mountain Peak
One of the highest peaks in the Caribbean, Blue Mountain is world-famous for the mild and slightly sweet coffee grown on its many hillside farms. Although that legacy continues, the region is also popular with eco-tourists, and it’s gaining a reputation as a world-class hiking destination as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
With its 1,300 species of flowering plants, 294 of which can be found only in Jamaica, this unique destination also holds half of the island’s 530 types of ferns, and it’s one of two remaining habitats of the endangered swallowtail butterfly. Beyond its spectacular biodiversity, the park also features a rare cloud forest, found in just 2.5% of the world’s tropical forests.
Trekking the 3,000 feet up Blue Mountain involves a seven-mile climb that takes several hours, but once you get to the peak, the view is well worth it. On a clear day, you can even see Cuba.
A first-time visitor to Appleton Estate could be forgiven for not realizing that the smooth and curvy hills that border the property are more than just a picturesque backdrop featured on the label of every bottle of the distillery’s rum.
They’re actually part of the lush Nassau Valley, a national park and animal refuge popular with birders and other naturalists. This range of hills, in fact, represents an extraordinary geological feature responsible for the region’s rich and fertile soils, as well as nearly half the island’s fresh water. The region’s “island with an island” formation is home to a spectacular array of biodiversity, including birds, reptiles, flowers, and ferns that can be found nowhere else on Earth.
It all started millions of years ago, when the edge of a limestone shelf rose from the sea and formed the island of Jamaica. The white limestone was shaped by tropical rain, which poured down over eons and formed a “Karst formation”—a unique topography of rounded hills and valleys.
The elevated parts of this range represent the largest swath of contiguous rainforest on the island. The cockpit depressions, or “poljes,” are simply the grooves left in the rock by pools of rainwater, which left behind exceptionally fertile and nutrient-dense soil that’s perfect for sugarcane.
Unique geological features and biodiversity aside, this region was also the site of Jamaica’s Maroon Wars, where formidable factions of former slaves established treaties with the British in order to maintain the autonomy of their settlements.
Today, visitors to the Nassau Valley enjoy scenic drives between the area’s picturesque towns and villages, taking in the spectacular vistas and glimpses of rare wildlife. And more adventurous visitors can explore the underground caverns, caves, and underground pools once used by Maroon warriors to defeat the British.
Sheltered by the rainforest and hills of the Nassau Valley, the estate’s land is rich in the dark soil that nurtures sugarcane, and it’s irrigated with mountain spring water, the soft limestone water of distillers’ dreams. And when the spirit comes off the still, it’s barreled off in Number One Select American oak to gently rest in the tropical heat that brings out all the spirit’s subtle fruit and rich flavour.
It’s one thing to read about it and another to experience it, though, which is why a visit to the Appleton Estate distillery is one of the most popular attractions on the island. There, it’s possible to smell, touch, and truly absorb the terroir and discover how this spirit is very much an expression of a unique patch of land on an island like no other.
Strawberry Hill Hotel
This luxury resort in the Blue Mountains is a true haven with a rich, colonial past dating back to the late 1700s, when English novelist Horace Walpole first learned the elevation was ideal for growing strawberries. Enjoy guided hikes, spa treatments, elevated traditional cuisine, total privacy, and of course, serenity.
Round Hill Hotel and Villas
Situated on a private beach a short drive from Montego Bay, this secluded and romantic ocean-facing hotel features 25 private luxury villas scattered around a sprawling property. After a day of world-class watersports in Round Hill Bay or lounging around the infinity pool, hit the cocktail bar and then indulge in a James Beard Award–winning chef’s take on modern dishes made with classic Jamaican ingredients.
Actually built into the sea cliffs of Negril, this breathtaking resort was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégés, who were inspired by their mentor’s philosophy that a design should be “of the land” as opposed to merely sitting on it. And, from the Rockhouse Restaurant to the Rum Bar and the thatched roof huts to the seaside pool, every feature at this one-of-a-kind hotel feels like an organic outgrowth perfectly melded into its awesome surroundings.
Anyone who’s ever been reluctant to come down from the treehouse and return to ordinary land life will absolutely love this incomparable resort, where the rustic cabins are actually built into the canopy of the tropical forest. Eco-friendly, isolated, and located a brief stroll from the Blue Lagoon, this natural paradise is the ultimate escape from reality for anyone looking for a little oasis to get away from it all.
During the Second World War, Captain Ian Fleming patrolled the Caribbean on a naval mission dubbed GoldenEye, and the region’s beauty captivated him. So when the war ended, he returned and bought fifteen acres of tropical brush in the port town of Oracabessa Bay, Jamaica. He sketched his ideal tropical villa on a desk blotter and called it GoldenEye, a name now synonymous with the thirteen James Bond novels he would famously write there.
Today, GoldenEye resort is renowned as one of the most luxurious destinations in the tropics, with Smart Luxury Travel having named it the Caribbean’s number one boutique hotel. Surrounded by jungle gardens and brimming with private beaches and secluded coves, the resort gives guests the choice of luxurious beach villas designed by Jamaican architect Ann Hodges, lagoon cottages with private docks and personal kayaks, and beach huts with stunning views of the azure water.
From its lush rainforests to its stunning azure waters, experiencing Jamaica should be on everyone’s bucket list. In the meantime, one may taste the essence of the island through the complex, full-bodied flavour of aged Jamaica rum like Appleton Estate, particularly when served in a classic rum cocktail.